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Go Figure: Measuring Up Body Image

CW: This article discusses topics of eating disorders which could be distressing to some readers.

Photo by Pixabay

Have you ever held your breath whilst watching the digits flicker on the scales? Stood in front of the mirror roughly estimating the circumference of your thighs and waist? Googled the size of X,Y,Z celebrities and directly compared the measurements to your own? Then, after some number crunching, feel deflated, perhaps a sense of failure or shame? Rest assured, you are not alone. A survey from January this year interviewing over 5,000 women saw 60% of respondents answer that the way they feel about themselves is largely influenced by their weight, shape and size.

It is time to question the validity of the methods we use to measure body image

Weighing it up

Clearly, we are a generation obsessed with numbers that encompass our diet, weight, size and even step count for the day. But what does it mean for us when those figures on the screen, on the scales or on the Fitbit don’t measure up to the, often unrealistic, expectations we place on ourselves? Simply, when we let these digits dictate the way we feel and perceive our body image, we begin a downward spiral of negative self-talk, corroding our self-esteem and damaging our relationship with exercise and food leading to potential eating disorders. In fact, in the UK alone, 61% of adults feel negatively or extremely negative about their body image most of the time.

However, by recognizing and understanding that these thoughts are a fallacy and the numbers narrative to define our image is a fabrication of the media to sell us a diet pill or weight loss plan, we can start to shake the toxic grip of arbitrary scales.

Off the hanger

Photo by Pavel Danilyuk from Pexels

The clothes shopping experience can be a minefield at the best of times: unflattering fluorescent lighting, hot and sweaty enclosed cubicles, queues that never end and the fashion industry does not make it any easier when it comes to sizing. The discrepancies and variation between sizes of different brands can be stressful, disorientating and triggering for consumers. The seemingly random and erratic systems prompt internalized doubt, "How can I be X in there but Y here?".

It is crucial to remember that brands create their lines with specific target audiences in mind, and because the current media environment (wrongly) promotes the message that smaller sizes are more attractive and thus more valued by society, those are the sizes most catered for. So simply, the fashion industry does not inclusively cater for the majority but rather reinforces the exclusivity of the minority.

The fact that the majority of UK women, 67% are size 18, a parameter that is defined as 'plus size', yet plus-size fashion only accounts for 22% of the market, is astounding! And shockingly, there are no legal guidelines here in the UK for clothing dimensions and sizes, the inconsistent standard is a construct varying from shop to shop. No wonder we are confused!

Thankfully, there is change on the horizon; Nike and Fenty spearheaded body-inclusive mannequins on the shop floor, diversity in media and marketing campaigns like the recent Sports Illustrated issue featuring Yumi Nu, and brands like Universal Standard making incredible clothes, focused on fit, from 00 to 40.

The takeaway

No doubt, current numerical labels are responsible for fueling body negativity and reinforcing the negative self-talk - “I always used to be size X in here, what's wrong with me?" - but with a slight shift in mindset, we can break the association between numbers and worth. Recognize the fashion industry has its own, warped, agenda to make sales and sizing is one of its greatest tools.

Dr Rachel Goldman, a clinical assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine, advises we tackle this habitual negative self-talk by reprogramming our thoughts, one at a time. As they crop up, take a moment to pause and ask yourself one of the following:

“Would I say this to a friend?” “Is this thought valid?” “Who told me to think this?”. Often we say and think things about ourselves we wouldn’t dream of saying to friends and family. Often we judge ourselves the most critically. Often we fall hook, line and sinker for the toxic media message. From here, try to replace each negative thought with a positive, affirming one. Something you would tell a friend. A compliment. Emphasize qualities and attributes. Notice how the new narrative does not rely on numbers, they are encouraging and empowering words and feelings- the best method to value ourselves and others.

Furthermore, we could concentrate and shift our focus away from labels and more to the fit of our clothes. Take a range of styles and shapes into the changing rooms and determine how the items of clothes make you feel. So what if the tag says 10, 16, 8, 20? Do you like the pattern? Does it fit your shape? Do you feel good wearing this? And Marie Kondo style- does this bring you joy?

Summing up

When we learn to break the correlation between numerical data and our perception of self-worth, we can take a step towards self-acceptance and body positivity. I am not a top trump card with legs: 7, face: 5. Nor am I my height. I am not my weight. My image is not a finite quantity to be classified. Sounds cheesy, but it’s true.

In short, by placing less value on the numbers we are told define us, and finding our own worth outside of measurement, I believe can truly be an addition to happiness.

Logically, numbers are just an expression of value for static, inanimate items like money or miles to the gallon. We are alive, animate, and subjective. We are human. Please do not use an objective system to classify your self-worth or assess your value.

Weight: Irrelevant

Size: Not Applicable

Shape: Human

We are more than the sum of our parts.


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